With two title fights headlining the card this weekend, UFC 181 might be the most action-packed show of 2014. Headlining on Saturday night in Las Vegas will be a rematch of what was likely the Fight of the Year when Johny Hendricks defends his title for the first time against Robbie Lawler.
The two gladiators fought for five rounds back in March, with Hendricks coming out on top by the narrowest of margins, and now Lawler has returned, looking for redemption and his first UFC title.
The co-main event is another epic title bout pitting lightweight champion Anthony Pettis against Gilbert Melendez. The two fighters spent an entire season coaching against each other on The Ultimate Fighter, but now they step into the Octagon to square off, with the winner reigning supreme as the new king at 155 pounds.
The entire main card for Saturday night is stacked, and to get you ready, today's fantasy preview will focus on some of the key fights from UFC 181, including both title fights. The odds are close in these matchups, so the line between winning or losing in the UFC Pick Em game is just as tough as the fights taking place inside the Octagon, so get ready for what should be an amazing night of action.
JOHNY HENDRICKS (-220 FAVORITE) VS. ROBBIE LAWLER (+180 UNDERDOG)
The last fight between these two top welterweights was not only one of the best fights of the year, but a title bout for the ages. Hendricks was able to outpoint Lawler while mixing in a bevy of takedowns late to secure the victory. Lawler nearly pulled off the win by tagging Hendricks with combinations in the middle of the fight and putting the future champion on the ropes time after time with his heavy striking attack.
Since their last fight, Hendricks has been on the sidelines, nursing a torn bicep that forced him into surgery and out of action for the past nine months. Lawler kept busy, picking up wins over Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown to earn another crack at the title and a shot at avenging the earlier loss to Hendricks.
Lawler can be a slow starter at times, but hopefully he's learned from his mistakes and he can come out of the gates firing at Hendricks from the opening of the first round. Lawler is one of the most prolific finishers in the history of MMA, putting away 83.3 percent of his opponents, but where he's gotten so good since coming back to the UFC and dropping down to welterweight is in showing patience. Many times in the past, Lawler would go for the kill so much that it would often get him in trouble as well. Lately, he's shown the same striking prowess that's earned him a 14-to-1 knockdown ratio in his career, but he's more tactical and precise with his combinations. He's shown excellent defense while standing, so the real key comes down to countering Hendricks' wrestling attacks.
Hendricks is no slouch on the feet and he actually out lands Lawler in strikes per minute and accuracy, but his bread and butter is his grappling game. The former NCAA champion has one of the best takedowns in the entire sport, landing with over 47 percent accuracy and averaging four per every 15 minutes he's in the Octagon. Hendricks secured his title win with a dominant fifth round performance against Lawler, putting him down several times and controlling the pace until the final horn sounded. Hendricks doesn't need to do much different this time other than maybe mix in some takedowns earlier to throw Lawler off his game a bit.
This fight is so even there's no telling where it will go or how it will end. The external factors might be the only difference going into the main event. Hendricks has been out for nine months and might be pushing himself to come back a bit early for the chance to defend his title at UFC 181. Lawler has stayed active, picking up two big wins, and he's had four full months to prepare for the rematch. This rivalry could end up being one of the best in UFC history, but for that to happen Lawler has to win the rematch and that's what he's set up to do this time around.
Prediction: Robbie Lawler by unanimous decision
ANTHONY PETTIS (-230 FAVORITE) VS. GILBERT MELENDEZ (+190 UNDERDOG)
The lightweight title fight pits current champion Anthony Pettis against one of the best 155-pound fighters of the last decade, Gilbert Melendez. This is a bout that's nearly a year in the making after the two fighters were chosen as coaches for the newest season of The Ultimate Fighter. Both fighters have been out of action for over a year, making the ring rust factor equal for Pettis and Melendez, so this will just come down to who executes better when they step into the cage together.
Pettis is a surgeon with his strikes. While his statistics show that he only lands 43 percent of his attempts, Pettis might be the most creative and devastating striker currently in the UFC. He hosts an arsenal unlike any other fighter on the roster, with fast hands and educated feet. Pettis is known for an unorthodox array where he almost comes up with new moves during a fight, often bouncing off the cage or throwing cartwheels in the middle of his combinations. Pettis is also very fundamentally sound, training under kickboxing guru Duke Roufus, so don't let the flash outweigh the basics, which he handles very, very well.
Melendez is no slouch when it comes to the striking arts. He's more traditional with a boxing-style attack and he rarely throws kicks. He lands over three and a half strikes per minute and attacks with volume. Melendez doesn't understand what slowing down even means. He's a good counter striker as well, but does have a tendency to get into big exchanges with opponents at times. Melendez almost always wins those striking matches, but against someone like Pettis, he'd be better advised to tuck his chin, hit hard and move away before he catches a counter.
If Pettis looks like the same fighter who assassinated Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone inside of three minutes and tapped out Benson Henderson in the first round, he's going to be awfully hard to pick against. Melendez is as good and tough as they come, but he might be running into a freight train this weekend. Pettis is motivated and ready to prove that he's not only the best lightweight in the world, but maybe one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. He can prove that with an emphatic victory over one of the best lightweights to ever step foot in the MMA arena.
Prediction: Anthony Pettis by TKO
TRAVIS BROWNE (-320 FAVORITE) VS. BRENDAN SCHAUB (+260 UNDERDOG)
The largest odds on the main card fall to Travis Browne as a three-to-one favorite over former Ultimate Fighter finalist Brendan Schaub in a featured heavyweight bout on the main card. Browne is returning to action for the first time since losing by unanimous decision to Fabricio Werdum, while Schaub comes back from a close and controversial loss to Andrei Arlovski back in June.
Browne has changed camps recently, moving to California to work with Ronda Rousey's head coach, Edmond Tarverdyan. Browne has raved about the coaching he's received leading into this fight, but switching camps following a loss can sometimes be a snap reaction and doesn't always result in better form the next time out. That should be the only concern with Browne because if he performs up to his ability, he could be looking at another knockout and a Performance of the Night bonus when the show is over. Browne is one of the deadliest strikers in the heavyweight division, with long, powerful punches and kicks. He lands with nothing but knockout shots and Browne throws everything with bad intentions.
Schaub has a tall mountain to climb, although he's capable of getting there. Over the last couple of years, Schaub has transformed himself from a brutish striker to a well-rounded heavyweight with slick submissions at his disposal. He put away Matt Mitrione with a choke and beat up Arlovski on the ground in the only definitive round of their fight back in June. Schaub averages over two takedowns per fight these days, but getting Browne to the ground will be easier said than done.
Browne defends takedowns nearly 86 percent of the time. Against the cage, Browne has developed lethal elbows that have finished off a couple of recent opponents and if Schaub does somehow manage to get stuck there he's better served to either back away or stand tall because he might be laying face down on the mat if he's not careful.
Prediction: Travis Browne by knockout
TONY FERGUSON (-250 FAVORITE) VS. ABEL TRUJILLO (+210 UNDERDOG)
Outside of the two title fights, the toughest pick on the main card is this lightweight battle between Tony Ferguson and Abel Trujillo
Ferguson has been on a roll lately, winning his last three fights in a row while working tirelessly to improve his submission and striking game each time he steps into the Octagon. His attacks are varied and can't be predicted because Ferguson loves to keep his opponents guessing. Trujillo isn't nearly as much of an anomaly, but his knockout power makes him one of the most feared fighters at 155 pounds.
Trujillo carries two sticks of dynamite in his hands and he can unload them at any time. The toughest part about Trujillo's game is the way he can uncork a combination, flurrying on a fighter with six or seven punches in a row until they can't weather the storm any longer and wilt from the pressure.
Ferguson has an ace in the hole with his wrestling, so he has to use that early and often to expose the one weakness Trujillo showed in his only loss in the UFC. Ferguson lands takedowns with over 57 percent accuracy, so he has to put Trujillo on the mat and keep him there. If he decides to test his hands with Trujillo, chances are Ferguson will not like the results at all. The smart play remains with Ferguson because he does have more ways to win. He packs a punch, but also carries a wrestling background and a submission arsenal. Unless he gets suckered into a stand-up war, Ferguson should find a way to win.
Prediction: Tony Ferguson by unanimous decision